Nations aim to make online safe for kids

Governments offer diverse ways to protect tykes

As more television content is distributed online and on phones, protections to keep children from accessing inappropriate programming have been instituted by governments around the world.

In 2007, the European Union launched the European Framework for Safer Mobile Use by Younger Teenagers and Children, designed specifically to protect minors using mobile phones. Rather than pass regulations per se, the Framework relies on European carriers to self-regulate and meet the stated mandates — such as establishing access control for adult content, classifying content based on individual countries’ cultural and social standards, and removing illegal content.

According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 22 EU countries as of April had adopted codes of conduct implemented by mobile carriers. It is estimated 96% of all mobile subscribers in the EU are with carriers that are signatories of the Framework.

In 2008, the BBC launched the CBBC iPlayer for kids 6-12, and the CBeebies iPlayer for children 6 and under debuted a year later. Both services were designed to prevent kids from accessing adult or age-inappropriate programming when using online TV services. They also offer on-demand viewing of their favorite BBC children’s shows. The CBeebies player has a lock feature, which BBC Children’s controller Richard Deverell says gives “parents greater flexibility and freedom to choose what their children watch and when.”

In the U.S., some content requires a credit card to prove age. Germany and South Korea have national age verification and identity authentication systems, based on national identity numbers issued at birth.

Another attempt at protection is education. The Council of Europe’s online game “Through the Wild Web Woods,” available in 14 languages, is aimed at 7- to 10-year-olds and teaches Internet safety and how to avoid unsuitable content via a game format.

While most agree walled cyber playgrounds are necessary, deciding what exactly is inappropriate content varies by country and culture. For content providers, it can be a challenge, says Anke Stoll, head of acquisitions and co-productions at Little Portman, a division of Digital Rights Group. Stoll says that’s the advantage of being in partnership with BBC, which “has a public broadcast mandate, so (its) producers are more aware of different countries’ standards.”

But there are often disagreements within countries as to what standard should be followed. In June 2008, the Japanese parliament passed an Internet regulation bill intended to prevent minors from accessing online content that included depictions deemed harmful, including violence, drugs and pornography. Under the law, cell phone and Internet service providers are required to provide content filters, and site owners must also take steps to prevent children from accessing unsuitable content.

Not everyone, however, agrees on what is unsuitable. Japanese bloggers pointed out that, for example, sites or programs depicting same-sex lifestyles would be deemed harmful, as would some anime and Internet games.

Differing sociopolitical philosophies aside, mobile and online protections for minors have become an accepted necessity in markets worldwide.

“In this new digital world, we all have a special responsibility to ensure the safety and security of young people in the online world, just as we do offline,” Intl. Telecommunication Union secretary-general Hamadoun I. Toure notes on his website.

Many industry analysts believe all digital content will eventually be rated by age appropriateness the way films are, with technology available to parents to block unwanted content, not unlike the sort of blocking technology cable operators currently offer.